This week will mark approximately two months since strict public health measures were first implemented in most Canadian jurisdictions in order to slow the spread of COVID-19. In recent weeks, as promising signs have emerged that Canada has been successful in flattening the curve of the virus, many provinces have announced plans to begin reopening their economies. What we are starting to see is a patchwork of plans across the country.

To date, every province except Nova Scotia has publicly released a guiding framework for the resumption of economic activity. While none of Canada’s territories have yet announced plans to reopen, top health officials in Yukon and the Northwest Territories have confirmed that the development of these plans is underway.

Although the impact and severity of COVID-19 varies in each jurisdiction across Canada, there are some key elements that recur across provincial approaches to reopening.

Common Themes: Gradual Approach and a “New Normal”

The most notable feature shared by all provincial reopening frameworks is the underlying understanding that the easing of public health restrictions and expansion of economic activity must occur gradually. Alberta’s Relaunch Strategy is described as “a plan that puts safety first while gradually reopening businesses and activities to the public, and getting people back to work.” In a similar vein, in Manitoba’s Restoring Safe Services roadmap, the Chief Provincial Public Health Officer commits to “gradually reduc[ing] the measures in place,” “safely restor[ing]… services and activities,” and “balancing the need to protect the vulnerable from COVID-19 with the need for other healthy choices, such as physical activity.”

In each provincial reopening plan, the gradual approach is paired with an ongoing assessment of key criteria related to the rate of COVID-19 transmission and the capacity of the provincial health system to manage new cases. In Newfoundland and Labrador’s Alert Level System, the province maintains the ability to move up or down Alert Levels as needed, and according to public health indicators. Similarly, the implementation of later stages of Ontario’s Framework for Reopening our Province will be contingent on the success of initial measures and a continued decline in the number of new cases.

Another element shared among provincial reopening frameworks is the acknowledgement of a “new normal,” which signifies that, even as businesses reopen and restrictions on gathering sizes are eased, our daily lives will continue to look very different from the pre-COVID era. New Brunswick’s Provincial Recovery Framework refers to “physical distancing, health screenings, physical barriers (plexiglass), hand washing, surface cleaning, masks and face coverings” as elements of the new normal. In the Renew PEI Together plan, PEI commits to seeking “innovative solutions to help us adapt and live with COVID-19.”

Early Measures: Resuming Outdoor Activities and Health Services

In addition to their shared gradual approaches and acceptance of the “new normal,” provincial reopening frameworks also consistently feature an early emphasis on resuming low-risk outdoor activities. According to British Columbia Provincial Health Officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, the risk of contracting COVID-19 outdoors, even when passing within six feet of someone “who is sick… and coughing or sneezing,” is “negligible,” while spending time outdoors is important for mental health.

Despite not having formally announced a plan, Nova Scotia began easing restrictions on low-risk outdoor spaces and activities on May 1st. Nova Scotia’s decision to reopen parks, garden centres, and driving ranges, and to allow drive-in religious services mirrors initial reopening measures outlined in the plans of other provinces. Similar preliminary steps have been taken by Alberta, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Ontario, PEI, and Saskatchewan.

While fewer provinces have resumed non-urgent health services to date, many provincial frameworks suggest that reopening the broader health care system will also be prioritized. On May 4th, Saskatchewan began to allow public access to “dentistry, optometry, physical therapy, optician services, podiatry, occupational therapy and chiropractic treatment.” Select health services have also resumed in Alberta, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, and PEI. On May 7th, Ontario released A Measured Approach to Planning for Surgeries and Procedures During the COVID-19 Pandemic. This framework document is intended to help Ontario hospitals “assess their readiness and begin planning for the gradual resumption of scheduled surgeries and procedures” by setting out criteria that must first be met, related to the number of COVID-19 cases, hospital bed and human resource capacity, and supplies of medication and personal protective equipment (PPE).

Where provincial reopening plans begin to diverge is in their varied approaches to reopening retail businesses, restaurants and schools. However, one theme that is evident regardless of timing is that these sectors are likely to be heavily restricted when they initially resume operations. Provincial governments will also need to consider methods of maintaining an adequate supply of PPE as permitted economic activity expands.

Provincial Outliers: Manitoba, Quebec, and British Columbia

Three provinces that stand out when comparing reopening frameworks are Manitoba, Quebec and British Columbia.

Manitoba and Quebec have implemented the most aggressive reopening frameworks and many businesses are already open in both provinces. As of May 4th, Manitoba has reopened health care services, retail businesses, restaurant patios, hair salons, museums, galleries, and libraries, all operating at reduced occupancy. In Quebec, except in the Montreal area, retail businesses with street entrances opened on May 4th, and construction, manufacturing, and elementary schools and daycares reopened on May 11th. In the Montreal area, these sectors are currently scheduled to reopen on May 25th, although this date has already been delayed twice since the reveal of Quebec’s reopening framework.

While Manitoba’s widespread reopening can be explained by the province’s low number of COVID-19 cases (under 300 as of May 11th), this rationale doesn’t apply in Quebec, which is the province hardest-hit by COVID-19 (more than 38,000 cases as of May 11th).

Quebec’s approach to reopening can be explained by the reality that the province is grappling concurrently with two distinct trajectories of COVID-19. While the situation is largely controlled elsewhere in the province, the outbreak of COVID-19 in the Greater Montreal area persists, accounting for more than 80 per cent of cases and 90 per cent of deaths in Quebec. A recent survey also found province-wide support for the notion of physically isolating Montreal in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19 throughout the rest of Quebec. The same survey found that half of Montreal residents believe that public health measures are being lifted too quickly. While Quebec Premier François Legault has been clear about his opposition to physically isolating Montreal, these results demonstrate that it is unlikely for him to face pressure to prematurely ease restrictions in the city.

While Manitoba and Quebec stand out for their ambitious approaches, British Columbia’s reopening framework is distinct because of the province’s different initial approach to curbing the spread of COVID-19. Compared to widespread sector closures in other jurisdictions across Canada, at the outset of the pandemic British Columbia only ordered the closure of dine-in restaurants, bars and nightclubs, and personal service facilities such as hair salons. While many businesses in British Columbia opted to close voluntarily, businesses that wished to remain open were able to do so with modifications in place.

As a result of British Columbia’s approach to COVID-19, BC’s Restart Plan is much less prescriptive than the plans announced by other provinces, can begin at a more advanced phase, and is able to apply best practices from businesses that remained open during the height of the pandemic. Under this plan, sectors that were ordered to close will be required to work with WorkSafeBC in order to develop plans to safely reopen. However, less guidance is provided for businesses that closed voluntarily, other than a recommendation that work from home arrangements be offered by employers, where possible.

Hill+Knowlton Strategies will continue to monitor for developments as they arise.